Jordan votes amid resentment over Syria refugees

By Kamal Taha, AFP

AMMAN–Jordan goes to the polls for municipal elections on Tuesday with the strain of a massive Syrian refugee influx on an already struggling economy stoking voter apathy and resentment. The main opposition Muslim Brotherhood is boycotting the polls, charging that, despite repeated promises since the Arab Spring of 2011, there is no real readiness for change. With few candidates of the leftist or nationalist opposition standing, tribal figures, who are the traditional bedrock of the monarchy, are set to sweep the elections. But even loyalist candidates have expressed growing anger during the campaign at the failure of the central government to do more to help the towns that have borne the biggest burden from the influx of more than 500,000 Syrian refugees. “The Syrian refugees are flooding Mafraq,” said Amer Doghmi, running for mayor of the northern town whose 60,000 population has been swamped by tens of thousands of refugees.

“Our situation was already bad before they came. Now we are in dire need of help and the government is not doing what it should do,” Doghmi told AFP. Government and UN officials say the refugee influx has placed a huge burden on already overstretched water and power supplies as well as housing and education. The desert kingdom has very limited water resources and relies almost entirely on imports for its energy needs, placing a huge strain on its finances. The government has announced a raft of austerity measures as it battles to reduce a US$2 billion deficit this year and rein in a foreign debt that now exceeds US$23 billion (17 billion euros). The government last month doubled taxes on cellphones and mobile telephone contracts, and plans are under way to raise the price of electricity by 15 percent. Jordanians, reeling from the price increases, are also angry about the impact of the refugee influx on unemployment. According to the labor ministry, more than 160,000 Syrian refugees hold jobs in Jordan. Analysts say public anger is likely to lead to low turnout on polling day and might spark post-election disturbances. “It is obvious that people are not enthusiastic at all about the elections,” said political analyst and researcher Hassan Abu Hanieh. Analyst Oraib Rintawi, who runs the Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, said: “The tough economic situation in the country and the regional turmoil, particularly the crisis in Syria and its impact on Jordan, do not help citizens focus on the polls. “In reality, there are no real and clear election campaigns or programs in Amman and other main cities, while in the remaining regions, the competition is purely tribal,” Rintawi told AFP. The authorities have expressed fear that the election might stoke clashes as rival tribes compete for council seats.